The Battle Over Britton Cumbo’s Estate

Britton Cumbo, my 4x Great grandfather and the root of the Cumbos of Northampton family from which I descend, was born a free person of color around 1825, orphaned as a young boy in 1837, and died in 1898 as a land owner and the Cumbo family patriarch.

What I’ve uncovered is that his death triggered a protracted court battle over his estate, the details of which were captured in a voluminous set of 1899 estate files, transcribed by Northampton court clerk J.T. Flythe, which I uncovered on For those of you who are not paid subscribers to Ancestry, estate records for your ancestors can also be found for free on

His estate files are over 100 pages long. So with vacation time coming up I naturally decided to print them out and take them with me. Most people take a book with them on vacation, but, just so you know, genealogists take things like estate files.


Here’s the story I uncovered. It begins in 1887, 11 years prior to Britton Cumbo’s death with the writing of his will.

Britton Cumbo Jr.’s Will & Affairs. In 1887 Britton Cumbo Jr. crafted his last will and testament. His father, Britton Cumbo Sr., had died with no will as far as I can tell, and his estate was sold off to pay his debts leaving Britton Jr. a penniless orphan. Perhaps this was Britton’s motivation behind establishing his own will. Whatever the motivation, I was proud to see that he’d had the foresight to get his estate in order. His will was drafted with a man named C.R. Harrell as one of the witnesses. Harrell, according to 1870 census, was a dry goods merchant, owner of Harrell Brothers and Company of Northampton, North Carolina. A dry goods store was essentially a country clothing store which sold products such as textiles, ready-to-wear clothing, and other sundries. Remember Harrell because he will be central to the fight over Brittons estate.

Britton Cumbo was a farmer with seven children and many more grandchildren, and by 1887 he owned approximately 50 acres of land. Interestingly enough, in his will, he chose to leave the bulk of his land to one of his descendants:

I then give and devise to my daughter Mary Bethenia Bowser 34 acres of land.

In the 1880 census for Northampton Mary Bethenia Bowser is listed as “Mattie B”, age 6, living with Britton and Mary Cumbo. Mattie was technically Britton’s granddaughter (the daughter of His daughter Virginia Ellen Cumbo and son in law Cordie Bowser) but Britton had helped to raise Mattie and they were quite close, so he referred to her throughout her life as his own daughter.

Britton’s will continued:

I give and bequeath to the balance of my children after my just debts are paid the balance of my property real or personal to equally divided between them.

The balance of his property available to his children, after netting out Mattie’s inheritance, was approximately 16 acres of land. The problem for them was that by the time Britton died, He was deeply indebted to, among others, Harrell Brothers and Company, likely due to clothing and household purchases he made over time on credit which then went unpaid and accumulated over the final years of his life. His estate records reveal at least 3 summary judgements issued by the Northampton County Justice of the Peace R.J. Ricks ruling in favor of Harrell against Britton Cumbo Jr. for unpaid bills. The debts totaled $127.78. Assuming 1898, the year of Brittons death as the initial year, in today’s dollars his debt would be worth approximately $3,770. Additionally, the judgements applied 8% compounded annual interest on the outstanding balances until they were fully repaid.  Here’s an example of a promissory note from Britton Cumbo to Harrell Brothers which was entered as evidence during the court battle.


Estate Battle. On January 19,1899, a few months after Britton Cumbo’s death, B.F. Martin was appointed by the courts as the legal administrator for Britton Cumbo’s estate. He moved quickly to sell all of Britton Cumbo’s personal property with proceeds to be applied to repay outstanding debts. Then on August 17th, 1899 he commenced special proceedings against Britton Cumbo’s heirs for sale of the 16 acres. Here’s a summons posted in the Roanoke-Chowan Times in 1899 publicly informing the heirs of Britton Cumbo to sell the real estate they inherited from him in order to pay down his debt obligations.


Interestingly enough, the court summons documents I discovered in Britton’s estate files are perhaps the most helpful genealogical documents I’ve uncovered in helping me to piece together Britton Cumbo’s family branches because they offer an exhaustive listing of every single heir of Britton Cumbo Jr.  Here’s the court summons which lists each Britton Cumbo heir.


Martin then commenced a second lawsuit against Mary Bowser who had inherited the 34 acres from her grandfather. A court battle related to both lawsuits would extend over 5 years and not be resolved until 1905.

Mary Ends Up With It All. The attorney for Mary Bethenia Bowser who by the time of court proceedings had grown and had married a man named Thomas Britt, argued unsuccessfully over many years that judgements for Harrell and others should be barred based on insufficient evidence as well as the statute of limitations on claimed obligations.

So Britton Cumbo’s heirs were forced to sell their land. According to court records from the Northampton County Courts Spring 1905 session, here’s how the sale played out:

…The day of sale the land herein was offered by public auction to the highest bidder at the courthouse door in Jackson on the first Monday June 1905 when among other bidders appeared Mary [Bethenia Bowser] Britt who had the cash and highest bid in the sum of $74 for said land which…contains 16 acres more or less…Your court reports that $74 is a fair price for said land and recommends that the sale be confirmed.

After this sale Mary Britt then paid another $235 to exonerate the original 34 acres Britton had left her from his remaining debt obligations. With the sale of Britton’s personal property, rental income accrued on the land during the court proceedings, along with these two land transactions, Britton Cumbo’s estate debts and associated court costs were fully settled on August 22, 1905. Mary Britt ended up with all 50 acres of her grandfather’s land. I often wonder how Mary Britt came up with all of that money. I know she worked the 34 acres she’d inherited throughout the 5+ years of court proceedings. Perhaps she earned the money through farming over that time. Or perhaps her husband Thomas Britt came from a family with means. Whatever the source, I’m glad that she was able to keep the land in the family after Britton’s passing. While Britton had decided to leave her the bulk of his estate in 1887 when she was only 6 years old, he must have seen something special in her, even at that young age, that led him to believe that she would fight to keep his land in the family.  Here’s a map of Britton Cumbo’s 50 acres which officially came into the possession of Mary Bowser Britt when the court battle was resolved in 1905.  It’s bordered by the Futrell, Draper and Mulder properties to the north, south and west and the Beale’s Mill Swamp/ Pond on the east.


Takeaways. This was the segregated Jim Crow South, but from what I can tell, this family of color was treated fairly through the adjudication process to settle Britton Cumbo’s estate. They were illiterate farmers, they all signed court records with an x, yet I can find no evidence that the courts or people involved in the case took advantage of my family in any way. This felt good to discover.

In 1667, Emanuell Cambow was granted 50 acres of land after serving as a slave and indentured servant in Jamestown. It’s amazing symmetry to think that one of his descendants, my 4x great grandfather, also owned 50 acres of land in Northampton NC to which his Cumbo ancestors had migrated from Virginia, and farmed it as a free man of color for many years and that through the efforts of Mary Bowser Britt the land stayed in the family for at least one more generation.



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